No other pro sports league has a drug policy as tough as the NFL's. Alone among the leagues, the NFL tests all players for drugs. Since 1982 players have been subject to urinalyses in training camp as well as unannounced follow-up tests when there is "reasonable cause" to believe a player is using drugs. Only the opposition of the NFL Players Association has blocked the NFL from adopting random testing for every player, something ordinarily imposed only on workers in industries where public safety is paramount, such as aviation and nuclear power.
The NFL also goes beyond the other leagues in meting out punishment to drug offenders. The NBA, the NHL and major league baseball all have suspended athletes who ran afoul of drug laws or whose drug involvement caused them to miss games or practice, but last year the NFL broke new ground when, based largely on test results, it suspended 24 players for alleged involvement with cocaine or marijuana or alcohol. That exceeded the total number of athletes suspended in 1988 by the NBA, the NHL and major league baseball and at the Calgary and Seoul Olympics.
The NFL's hard-line approach may well deter some players from using drugs. Yet SI has turned up widespread irregularities, inconsistencies and misrepresentations in nearly every facet of the NFL's drug program. League officials have misstated the dimensions of drug use among players, exaggerating or underestimating it, depending on their public relations needs of the moment. They have seldom bothered to distinguish between players who are addicted and those who have used drugs recreationally. And they have misappropriated drug testing, using a medical tool for punitive purposes.
The NFL's drug program relies heavily on testing. In fact, it consists of little more than testing. Drug testing in the workplace is a controversial issue, but even impassioned proponents of increased testing agree that drug tests of any kind must be conducted with civil liberties safeguards. Such safeguards are often circumvented in the NFL program. League commissioner Pete Rozelle, who in March announced his intention to step down after 29 years on the job—his retirement becomes effective upon selection of a successor, possibly this week—must take much of the blame for this, because he has ruled over the NFL's drug program like Jehovah, sitting as judge, jury and prosecutor of drug cases. However, nothing Rozelle has done opens him to second-guessing more than his appointment of Dr. Forest Tennant Jr. as the league's drug adviser. Tennant, 48, who operates a string of California methadone clinics (page 46) and has considerable experience in drug testing and counseling, lends a veneer of medical respectability to the NFL drug program, but in carrying out his NFL duties, his administrative competence and adherence to accepted drug-testing standards have been found seriously wanting.
This special report is based on transcripts of hearings and court proceedings in NFL drug cases and on interviews with players, agents, team doctors, NFLPA officials and drug experts. It also draws on information provided by a number of former employees of Tennant's. Rozelle declined to be interviewed, explaining that the commissioner's office was in "transition," and he deferred questions to Jay Moyer, the NFL's executive vice-president and counsel to the commissioner. Tennant also would not reply to questions, noting that he is prohibited from publicly discussing any aspect of the NFL's drug program by a 1987 arbitrator's ruling sought by the NFLPA—although he hasn't always abided by this ruling. He has on occasion told others of drug abuse by specific players. Moreover, Tennant refused to respond to questions about drug policy generally or about his clinics, subjects not covered by the ruling. Nevertheless, many of Tennant's views are available in transcripts of NFL drug hearings. Among SI's findings:
•The NFL's drug-testing program has turned up scant evidence of illicit substance use by players. According to data shown to SI, 6.5% of all NFL players tested positive for cocaine, marijuana, alcohol and other drugs (except anabolic steroids) in preseason 1986, and 9.6% tested positive for these drugs in preseason '87. However, most positives were for over-the-counter medication or alcohol. Only 0.7% of NFL players tested positive for cocaine in 1986 and 0.8% in 1987. The figures for marijuana were 1.8% and 1.6%, respectively. Instead of trumpeting these figures, the NFL has taken care not to divulge them. One possible reason is that officials thought nobody would take the figures seriously. After all, players knew about the tests in advance and had time to cleanse their systems. But there's another probable explanation: To justify its brass-knuckles drug policy, the NFL needs to give the impression that drug use by players is widespread.
•The low figures should have been lower still, because the NFL apparently considers even trace amounts of marijuana and cocaine as positives, although such small readings in confirmatory tests can be caused by passive inhalation—e.g., breathing in somebody else's marijuana smoke at a party—or by the inability of testing equipment to distinguish among substances at very low levels. Until last year, the NFL had a provision in its drug policy that said marijuana metabolite levels below 50 nanograms—a nanogram is one billionth of a gram—"could be considered passive inhalation." But Moyer told SI in an interview last week that the NFL never felt bound by a 50-ng cutoff. In fact, the league often ignored the figure. According to data shown to SI, 41 players were deemed to have tested positive for marijuana in preseason 1987; 34 of them had readings of less than 50 ng. Before the start of preseason testing in '88, the league dropped the 50-ng reference from its drug-policy literature. The league offered no explanation at the time, but Moyer told SI, "You learn as you go along and as the science improves. And we felt that there was no need to specify a figure."
The NFL has never acknowledged recognizing a threshold for cocaine, but other organizations that test employees do so. Last year the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) adopted thresholds for both cocaine and marijuana for government employees, and they have become widely accepted in private industry. Under NIDA standards, samples are positive only if they contain at least 150 ng of cocaine metabolite or 15 ng of a marijuana metabolite in confirmatory tests. SI has learned that of 17 players who were considered by the NFL to have tested positive for cocaine in 1987, six were below the NIDA level; 10 of the 41 marijuana positives would have been below the current NIDA level.
•The NFL conducts drug tests on college players at its annual scouting combine, and here, too, the league has dipped below the 50-ng level in determining positives for marijuana. Combine records shown to SI reveal that 48 players tested positive in 1986 with marijuana levels of less than 50 ng. Eighteen of them were drafted, and several of them, according to agents, may have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars because word of their supposed positives was passed on to league personnel directors. The players were consequently picked lower in the NFL draft than they otherwise would have been. One player so affected had a marijuana level of 11 ng on a screening test and of zero on a confirmation test. Amazingly, the league treated this sample as a positive.
•Under NFL procedures, players adjudged to have been positive in league-wide tests are subject to reasonable-cause testing—that is, at any time, in season or out, the league can demand a urine specimen for purposes of drug testing. That many of these players had "positives" below accepted thresholds doesn't seem to bother the NFL, which defines reasonable cause in the broadest possible terms. According to NFL policy, reasonable-cause testing can be triggered by, among other things, "a pattern of aberrant behavior," which is whatever the league says it is. NFLPA assistant executive director Doug Allen says that several years ago, an NFL coach tried to get one of his players tested for reasonable cause because the player had not been hanging around with teammates after practice. The player had to admit that he was taking piano lessons and didn't want his teammates to know. Only then was he spared the testing. Once reasonable-cause testing begins, it can go on and on. Moyer said in a drug-case hearing last year, "There is no fixed duration of reasonable-cause testing."